It does not matter to me whether Pakistan have lifted the Asia Cup or not. What the tournament has demonstrated is what I have advocated since 2004. Pick the team on merit, end the likes and dislikes in selection, pull away the monetary magnet and water down the role of the captain in selecting the final XI. One or more of this may not be happening but the overall outcome seems to indicate that majority of that is taking shape. Pakistan has shifted to winning games from hopeless situations rather than losing games from comfortable situations.
So what has happened to bring about this environment? Well, first of all the induction of local team management. Moin Khan is more into overtly aggressive pursuits than painting passive scenarios. There is less of ‘maybe’ and more of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The presence of Zaheer Abbas beside him gives Moin an added strength in making his case. Shoaib is quick to acquiesce but has a cricketing brain nevertheless. The very act of them sitting together in the dugout rather than lounging separately in different corners of the dressing room with an aimless look at the TV or ground shows that the team management means business; that Zaheer and Shoaib are the lieutenants who respect their major.
The second thing that has happened is that those with greater skill and temperament are now being given the opportunity rather than the tried and distrusted. Nepotism seems to have been mitigated, though a look at the World Twenty20 squad shows that influencers behind the scenes still carry the stick. The presence of Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik there in addition to the off-on Sohail Tanveer, who leaks more runs than he did before, has not just surprised but has astonished me. After the Champions Trophy disaster last summer I had thought that the blatant favoritism would be culled at least for players like Malik. In addition I thought that Kamran Akmal would be discarded once and for all after the tour of South Africa just over a year ago from today. These comebacks are strange and have no basis.
But for the moment their absence has shown that in actuality the team has moved on for the better and that Moin and his think-tank are backing the boys on merit and a longer team strategy. Moin was the manager and de facto coach and selector when Sharjeel Khan and Sohaib Maqsood came into the team, and he has handled Ahmed Shahzad equally well. It was Moin who had planned for Sarfraz to be sent in at No.4 even before the innings began in that grand chase of 300-plus on the last day of the Test series. Now with Fawad Alam stepping up to show his calibre and match fitness in a chase, PCB and the back office boys have been exposed for their selfish and nefarious designs they were executing on the Pakistan cricket team.
The master stroke of sending Fawad Alam and Afridi ahead of Umar Akmal, the first to stabilise with singles and present a left-right combination and the other for the pincer attack, was clearly Moin. We have seen for the past few years that Misbah and Hafeez don’t innovate or adjust to the situation. An early exit of Umar who, despite his brilliance has the tendency to go for the early skier, would have put more pressure. Even if Akmal had gone for the long handle Moin knew they needed someone with a greater strike power than Umar.
The third thing that has happened in the team is following of instinct, so important in battle and sport. Sending in Sarfraz Ahmed at No 4 against Sri Lanka on the final day and the choice of Fawad Alam and Afridi being sent in when they were against Bangladesh is proof of that. Of the captains I have seen up close, Mushtaq Mohammad in the 70s and Javed Miandad and Imran Khan after that had that sort of sixth sense. Moin was captain for not too long for reasons other than cricket, but he always displayed that trait whether keeping wickets or batting.
The fourth and maybe not the final change that I have seen is that of more bonhomie in the dressing room. You could see a sense of isolation and split ends when Dav Whatmore was in charge. It would seem as if Misbah was on his own mostly, and in Twenty20s an overly autocratic Hafeez seemed to call the shots. But watching this tournament you can sense that Misbah has good advice around him. He is an educated and matured individual and shouldn’t feel threatened. It about time the Pakistan team thought as a unit; that’s the only way to go forward in this era of sport.
If not for such team thought, instinct and innovation Pakistan was done and dusted against both India and Bangladesh. It is my personal opinion (probably I’m wrong) that there was more than what met the eye in both games. The running out of Misbah, go slow by the upper and middle, and against Bangladesh those amazing three balls bowled by Abdul Rehman, lusterless fielding and consistent short and arms length bowling by Talha should be looked into. Against Bangladesh especially there seemed some muted faces even as Afridi was striking those sixes. One camera shot especially after Fawad Alam hit his first six when most were thinking that Bangladesh had got back in the game after the run out of Afridi, puzzled me. There was a strange quietness in the dugout among the players, and Misbah wore a withered look. This was a time when team members normally jump for joy.
Is it simply an element of jealousy that Fawad Alam, the young man they have kept out for well over three years and labeled as unfit for limited over cricket showed them up? Or is it something more? I mentioned Umar Akmal was held back and watching him bat in the last over I felt sure that had he been sent ahead of Afridi the run-rate would have been beyond what even Afridi overcame when he went in.
On both occasions the match was put beyond victory before the last five overs; on both occasions it was the unexpected blast from the past by Afridi that no one, including the team, was expecting. On both occasions the decisions went against Pakistan by the two umpires including the ridiculous caught behind of Sohaib.
Did Moin sense something on and off the field for the first 90 overs or so? How can a spinner bowl three consecutive high end deliveries aware that it will knock him out of the action? Rehman has been known for bowling spot on from the first delivery and all through the last two years, has almost always come in for the last match or two after a rusty stint on the benches. This was a hot afternoon and not evening when the ball may have been difficult to grip because of dew. It effectively reduced a specialist bowler option and there was no choice but to bowl Talha even though he was getting stick. Knowing Zakir, I doubt it will come up in the manager’s report but I feel Moin should have a word when he returns. Question is, if my observation has weight, who can he trust?